Falling into knowledge: what is the original sin?




The “fall” narrative in Genesis 3 is a crucial text for Christianity. Right from as far back as we can reliably go, with the apostle Paul, followers of Jesus have been interpreting his significance in light of this story. Sin came into the world with Adam and in Jesus God has acted to restore our relationship to God and to enable us to re-enter the pre-lapsarian intimacy with our creator,

As has often been noted this story is not given the same significance in the texts of the Old Testament. Even if you think “Adam” is a name in Genesis (and it isn’t absolutely obvious it doesn’t just mean “the” or even “a” man) it is pretty clear that this name never appears again in the Old Testament. “Adam” is a character with only a brief walk on part in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Ezekiel mentions the garden (which is what the word Eden means) but interprets the story, it would seem, slightly differently. What went wrong, Ezekiel 28 seems to say, is that “abundant trade” filled the one anointed with internal violence. This may be a way of referring to the same story as Gen 3 or it might be a different story but it’s the only real sign of the OT relating itself to the fall narrative.

I suspect the reason for this is that Genesis is best read as a preface to the rest of the Five Books (or Pentateuch: Genesis; Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The other four tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt under Moses’ leadership up until his last address to Israel on the verge of entering the land of Canaan. This is the real beginning of the story of Israel and is treated as such in the rest of the Old Testament.

Genesis is a relatively late (most scholars agree that it is a product of the period of the exile in Babylon, between 587 and around 500 BC) reflection on the relationship between the one God, creator of all that is in heaven and in earth, the created order, human beings within that order and Israel as the people chosen by God.

If God’s revelation unfolds and develops over historical time (and I find it hard to see how any reader of the Bible could not conclude that that is what our scriptures tell us) this is not problematic. The establishment and then destruction of the Davidic kingdom reveal something about God. It took time for what they reveal to be understood and interpreted, indeed this understanding and interpretation continue as a Spirit led task for Christians today.

The stories of the creation and fall as told in Genesis are explorations and revelations of God’s nature, the nature of the created order and the nature and role of human beings in the light of the story of Israel to the date of their writing. This whole process of thought, imagination and composition was itself an inspired, a God-guided exercise in which the limited human facilities of the exiled scholars, priests and prophets was put to work in finding the will of God for Israel in that time and place and in so doing to be given insights into the very nature of God himself.

The key problem confronting the exiles was: how could this disaster have befallen the people chosen by a good and all-powerful God? If we are God’s people and God rules all things why is our king overthrown, God’s Temple destroyed, our city put to the sack and our leaders in exile? The answer they gave was that this core reason was the departure of the people and especially of their kings from God’s ways of justice and of exclusive worship. The kings (especially Manasseh) had worshiped false gods and oppressed the people.

Exactly why God’s response was as it was is understood slightly differently by different people: some see it more as an expression of vengeful wrath, others as a stage to the putting right of what was wrong in Israel, as remedial action. Either way the canonical writers were agreed that this was a temporary state of affairs. Israel would be restored and resume its special work on God’s behalf.

In the book of Genesis, I believe, they projected backwards (under God’s guidance) to understand what Israel’s mission was in the first place. Hence they told the stories of Abraham and his descendants until the settlement in Egypt from Chapter 12 and until then they told the background story of why God elected Abram in the first place. Gen 1-3 sets up the basic problem and God, humans and world to which first Noah and then Abram are moves towards a solution.

The problem of “original sin” is the problem of why anyone is needed to put right our relationship with God: why Noah? why Abram? And for us: why Jesus?

A popular Reformed answer is that it’s all about obedience and this isn’t wrong: it is, but only if you understand the term “obedience” in the right way. God doesn’t give Adam a law against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he warns him that it will have bad consequences, that it will cause his death.

The eating of the fruit is not motivated by a desire for pleasure nor by resentment against God’s limiting command, as I read it. It is quite specifically motivated by the desire to know what God knows, good and evil. It is the desire to be able to understand what is good and what is bad (in senses closer to health and sickness than moral righteousness).

A final point about this motivation relates to the Hebrew verb translated as “to know”, yada. This verb has a rather different connotation than our English equivalent, demonstrated powerfully by its use as a term denoting sexual intercourse. “Knowing” in this version is an intuitive and  emotional, a bodily and immediate, a concrete knowing. Our “knowing” can accommodate this but tends to be dominated by a more abstract, more word-based, more conceptual flavour, We know things where the Biblical writers know persons.

This is why it makes sense that in the end the solution to the problem of the separation from God brought about by a knowledge of good and evil is a person, is Jesus, not a new and better Law. The Law can’t save, as Paul reminds us, and that applies to all Law-like structures. The only salvation is in knowing God in Christ, overcoming the independence of God we seek through our knowledge of good and evil and resuming our trusting dependence of a God now know differently, in one of us.

  1. Anne Shearer said:

    So why did this knowledge separate us from God?

  2. Now that’s a really good question …

    The answer is one that can only be grasped, I suspect, from the position of a fully restored communion with God, such as is promised to us at the end of things when Jesus returns in glory to judge and to rule; when we see, as Paul says, face to face. The ability to know good and evil while being untainted by the evil we know is. I think, not available to creatures but only to the transcendent creator, and when we try to think about why we are beyond what is thinkable by us, I suspect.

    I can only say that my experience and my sense is that neither I nor anyone else I have met or known about seems to me to be simply and undividedly good and that I find myself unable to believe in such a human person. I can and do, however, believe that with God all things are possible and that in Christ we encounter him. Christ is the perfected human being, with whom we can have a relationship and his perfection is grounded in his total identification with the will of God.

    That’s why, for me, Jesus’ prayer on the night of his arrest “not my will but yours” is a crucial moment in his life. At this point the attempt to know what is good (and what is evil) is given up and God’s will affirmed, whatever it might be.

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